Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Card #114: Ken Landreaux

Who Can It Be Now?
Kenneth Francis Landreaux was born on December 22, 1954, in Los Angeles. He grew up in Compton in a time when baseball was flourishing in that Los Angeles neighborhood, with guys like Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray, Reggie Smith, Chet Lemon, Lyman Bostock, Dan Ford, and Darryl Strawberry, among others, playing baseball in and around Compton at that time.

Landreaux was a good baseball player even at Dominguez High School. He was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 8th Round of the 1973 June Draft, but he chose not to sign. As he put it recently, he felt he was "way too small" at 155 pounds to jump into minor league baseball, so he chose instead to attend Arizona State University on a baseball scholarship. 

With Arizona State, he played in the 1975 and 1976 College World Series and was named to the All-Tournament Team in 1976. The 1975 team set a record for having the most future major leaguers on it at thirteen, and the 1976 team matched that record -- Gary Allenson, Chris Bando, Floyd Bannister, Ken Phelps, and Bob Horner, just to name 5. Yet, ASU did not win the College World Series in either season.

Just before the 1976 College World Series began, Landreaux was drafted by the California Angels with the sixth pick overall in the 1976 June Draft. He was picked 5 spots after college teammate Floyd Bannister was selected by the Astros. The Angels recognized that Landreaux was an advanced hitting prospect and, once they got him to sign, they sent him to Double-A El Paso in the Texas League in 1976.  

After a 21-game introduction to professional baseball in 1976, Landreaux split his 1977 season between El Paso and Triple-A Salt Lake City. Between those two stops -- both of which were excellent hitters' environments -- Landreaux hit .357/.429/.637 with 27 HR, 116 RBI, 20 SB (11 CS), 33 2B, and 8 3B. No matter where you hit, you will get recognition if you hit .357 over a full season. For his efforts, Landreaux was named The Sporting News Minor League Player of the Year in 1977. He also earned his first major league call-up to the big club.

In 1978, the Angels were trying to contend for the AL West pennant. Having signed free agents Lyman Bostock and Rick Miller in the offseason, the Angels decided to have Landreaux serve as their fourth outfielder to give Bostock, Miller, and Joe Rudi days off (though Don Baylor did that some as well in left field) in addition to providing a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner off the bench. Landreaux started just 57 games that season.

In today's game, perhaps Landreaux would have split time in 1978 between Triple-A and the majors, because he struggled at the plate that year (.223/.284/.346). Looking ahead to 1979, though, one might have assumed that the Angels would have pushed Landreaux into the starting lineup to replace Bostock, who was murdered in Gary, Indiana, in late September of 1978. 

Either the Angels did not trust Landreaux, or they viewed him as more of a chit to be traded rather than kept. In December of 1978, the Angels traded Danny Goodwin and Ron Jackson to the Twins in exchange for Dan Ford. Ford was installed as the starting right fielder,  Then, in February of 1979, Landreaux was traded to the Angels Triple-A team in Minneapolis, I mean, the Twins, with catcher Dave Engle and pitchers Paul Hartzell and Brad Havens in exchange for Rod Carew. 

Landreaux benefited from the trade greatly. Getting to play nearly every day, he hit .305/.347/.450 with 15 HR, 10 SB, and 15 3Bs.  Indeed, that season at the age of 24 made many think that Landreaux would live up to the advance billing from his 1977 minor league season.

Because he was toiling in relative anonymity in Minnesota, that .305 season did not necessarily draw all that much acclaim to Landreaux. But, early in 1980, every baseball fan knew the name Ken Landreaux. 

On April 23, Landreaux went 1-for-4 in a game in which the Twins were annihilated by Landreaux's former team, the California Angels. In hitting a double off Bruce Kison with one out in the 9th inning, Landreaux broke up Kison's bid for a no-hitter. Landreaux then proceed to get a hit in every game in which he appeared (except 1, in which he walked) from that day until May 31, when he went o-for-4 against lefty Scott McGregor. In between, Landreaux hit in 31 consecutive games, going 49-for-125 with 2 HR with a slash line of .392/.445/.496.

The news stories started appearing about the new superstar in Minnesota. As this AP article started:
When the Minnesota Twins dealt Rod Carew to California two years ago, they hoped they were trading one bonafide superstar for a potential one -- Ken Landreaux.
Gene Mauch, the Twins manager at the time, was similarly exuberant, stating that he thought the trade "could turn out to be the best trade that was ever made in the history of the game" for the Twins. Landreaux was also named as the Twins representative to the All-Star Game in 1980.

Yet, outside of the hitting streak, Landreaux had a terrible year. He finished the season hitting .281/.334/.417. To put that into context, when he was not on the 31-game streak, he went 87-for-359 -- just .242. From May 31 to the end of the season, he hit just .238/.291/.384. 

So, about 9 months after Gene Mauch went into full Sparky-Anderson-talking-about-Chris-Pittaro mode, the Twins sent Landreaux back to the Greater Los Angeles area in exchange for two minor leaguers and outfielder Mickey Hatcher at the end of spring training in 1981. 

The move worked out well for Landreaux in many respects, not the least of which was leaving a terribly run Twins organization behind and joining a winning team in the Dodgers. While his hitting did not improve -- it regressed, in fact -- I believe Landreaux would tell you himself that it was all worth it when he caught the final out to win the 1981 World Series against the New York Yankees.

Landreaux played the last 7 seasons of his career with the Dodgers, first as a regular and later as a regular pinch hitter and pinch runner. He became one of Tommy Lasorda's favorite players, even though by the end of 1987 the Dodgers appeared to be actively trying to push him aside. Perhaps he became one of Tommy's favorites by being willing to do things like pinch hit even if Landreaux did not believe that pinch hitting was his "type of baseball" and that he played "best -- [and] hit best -- when [he was] playing every day." Landreaux's rationale for accepting it? "I'll do whatever Lasorda wants, but it's not what I want." Lasorda's response was, "Listen, the General (Landreaux's nickname) has been with me a long time, and he knows that I respect him as a player."

After the 1987 season, Landreaux's contract with the Dodgers ended. He hooked on with Baltimore's Triple-A affiliate in Rochester for 1988. He then played in Triple-A Albuquerque in the Dodgers organization and for Aguascalientes in the Mexican League in 1989 before calling time on his playing career.

Mustache Check: Yup, Landreaux has a thick mustache on this card.

Family Ties
Landreaux grew up about 15 minutes away from his cousin, Enos Cabell. Cabell's Baseball Reference page mentions that Cabell had another cousin -- Dick Davis -- who played in the major leagues. Davis must have been a cousin on the other side of Cabell's family from Landreaux. But geez, that must have been one hell of a family reunion softball game back in the 1970s.

Pass The Dutchie
Perhaps Landreaux never fulfilled his promise with the Twins due to drug and alcohol problems. Shortly after Steve Howe emerged from the first of his attempts at rehab, Landreaux checked into rehab himself. That story notes that Landreaux was receiving criticism at the end of the 1982 season for a "lack of stamina . . . amid rumors of an impending trade."

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I was only 8 years old when Ken Landreaux went on his 31-game hitting streak in 1980, yet I was well aware of it. I had no idea that his 1980 season had ended so poorly, though. 

Surprisingly, he was the first player in major league history to have a hitting streak of thirty or more games in one season and finish the season with a batting average under .300. That feat has since been matched by Dan Uggla in 2011 (who had to hit in 33 straight games to get his batting average up to .233), Jerome Walton in 1989, Willy Tavares in 2006, Ryan Zimmerman in 2009, and Andre Ethier in 2011.  The last four guys all hit for exactly thirty games in a row, for what that's worth.

After his playing career ended, Landreaux continued to struggle with drug and alcohol problems. Eventually, he worked at it and became sober. As a result, he ended up being a family and drug-abuse counselor at Bellwood Health Center in Bellflower, California.

In 2000 to 2002, he worked as a hitting coach in the Toronto Blue Jays organization -- first at Single-A Hagerstown and then for two years at Triple-A Syracuse. Since then, he has served in an ambassadorial role for the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. 

More importantly, he has worked regularly with the Compton Urban Youth Academy. The Compton Academy brings in good players from the surrounding neighborhoods to help teach baseball and softball but also to teach life skills. As Landreaux himself put it, "I'm trying to teach these kids how to handle adversity and deal with any situation in life. Through baseball and the importance of learning the fundamentals, they can learn the discipline to become educated, to be good, productive citizens. That's what we're striving for here." 

The Academy has seen success already. In the 2013 Major League Draft, Academy graduate Dominic Smith was drafted 11th overall by the New York Mets. If you're interested in finding out more about the Compton Urban Youth Academy, you can visit its blog. It is one of many MLB Urban Youth Academies across the country.

Hats off to Ken Landreaux for his involvement with the Academy.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see a happy ending. The big questions is how much would it be to play golf with him.